Behind the scenes: Moving Staircases

Creating a set for a castle whose architecture is as magical as its inhabitants was bound to come with its challenges…

the moving stair
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Extracted from Harry Potter: The Creature Vault by Jody Revenson

One of Stuart Craig’s first assignments for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was to install the moving staircases that travel from floor to floor in Hogwarts. To start, he needed to determine how the staircases would move. An initial thought was to mimic an escalator, but Craig says, ‘as the stairs are made of marble, it seemed too much of a stretch!’

He came up with the idea of a staircase literally swinging ninety degrees from one position to the next. ‘It could be lying against a wall and then swing across space and form a bridge from one landing to another. That seemed the simplest mechanically.’ He envisioned the complete stairwell as a square made up of staircases on four sides. ‘Those staircases then led to four sides of another square above, and that led to four sides of another square, and so on. It was like a double helix; the stairs did actually wrap themselves around one another. And somehow this simple module and this simple mechanical move suddenly became a complicated piece of geometry.’

The final look, when Harry Potter first learns about the moving staircases, is quite breathtaking. A moving staircase in Philosopher’s Stone is what leads Harry, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger to the out-of-bounds third-floor corridor and their first encounter with Fluffy, the three-headed canine guardian of the Philosopher’s Stone. As a practical effect, the actors stood on a single staircase that moved hydraulically in front of a green screen.

The moving staircases in Hogwarts
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The main marble staircase was lined with two hundred and fifty magical paintings, whose subjects could move and talk to the students. Bringing these images to life involved coordination between several of the studio’s departments. ‘The art director in charge of props on each film would research and commission what portraits were needed and then coordinate getting them painted,’ explains set decorator Stephenie McMillan. Over the course of the film series, this task fell to Lucinda Thomson, Alex Walker, and Hattie Storey, and it involved both reinterpreting real classical paintings and creating new ones. The costume, props, and makeup departments all contributed their talents.

A photo of the scene would be taken and digitally given a painterly texture and ‘varnish’ so that it imitated the look of an oil painting. Other paintings were original pieces by studio artists, who often painted them ‘in the style’ of famous artists. Ultimately, the range of art represented the history of painting from Egypt to the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. However, many of the portrait subjects in the paintings were actually the filmmakers, the crew members, and their families. Stuart Craig’s portrait (inscribed Henry Bumblepuft, 1542) has a prominent place on the grand staircase. Portraits that would have moving subjects were placed on the wall with a blue-screen overlay within the frame for digital insertion in editing. For Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, the portraits were re-created with empty backgrounds, as all the subjects fled their paintings for safety.

Harry Potter: Magical Places book cover

Extracted from
‘Harry Potter: Magical Places from the films'